Column Editor: Ann Okerson (Advisor on Electronic Resources Strategy, Center for Research Libraries)
These are head-spinning days. On the one hand, it’s as if someone pushed the pause button on the world and everything has gone into suspended animation. On the other hand, an invisible enemy is loose among us, powerful and untraceable. Are these the best of times or the worst of times? Where will we be in six months? And of course the network world doesn’t just terrify and inform us, but it also distracts us. Netflix and other providers have had to scale back the speed at which they feed our binge-watching habits because there are so many of us at home, in suspended animation, browsing for distraction and amusement. Will we stay the course watching Schitt’s Creek and its reverse Beverly Hillbillies in their tiny town in Canada? Stay tuned!
For those who work in the world of library collections, it’s just as head spinning. Suddenly, whether on request from librarians or goodwill from information providers, we have jumped into an age of even more plenty — of information. The global drama is being played out in every form of media ever invented, and we can spend whole days sorting, scanning, and sifting through the welter of information about the COVID-19 crisis — and of course, much more besides. Never have so many had access to so much information about something so small and so dangerous.
Our readers turn back to their computers and find that their research library is offering a COVID-19 resource page — only to discover that there’s some COVID-19-specific information, but there’s a lot more. It’s a welter of variously themed information resources, some they’ve heard of, some not, all concentrated in a menu listing or two and turned in their direction like a great info-firehose. Publishers have leapt to show social concern (and marketing savvy) by opening up assorted resources that are often available only via expensive licenses and making them available for the duration of the emergency. For example, in the commercial sector, publishers such as De Gruyter offer a huge aggregation of near current and backlist university press books — can Princeton Press really be offering 6,000 titles for free? Various information providers are offering periodical indexes, research databases, full text journals, and more — some are freely open to all, some to subscribers, others only to members of specific libraries or consortia. On the non-profit side, for example, The Internet Archive has a National Emergency Library for the world, while HathiTrust offers Emergency Temporary Access Services for its members. And all these riches are offered with short-term expiration dates estimating when the emergency will lift.
So what do we make of this chaotic and erratic information environment? We can draw a few lessons:
It’s mainly up to the librarians to figure out how to translate this transitory Wild West availability successfully, so that information reaches those end-users who will benefit from it. Every publisher wants to show how generous they are, but readers care less about specific publishers or their generosity: they will use what they need and they will look first of all for content relevant to their teaching, learning, or research. There’s the non-trival question of how much work librarians can imagine doing to make accessible all this “free” information. They (we) do some of the usual work: create websites, LibGuides, instructional sessions (on Zoom, of course), and liaison outreach to faculty.
We re-learn the lesson that many organizations have already discovered over time — information being made available for free is only the first part of the picture. For example, almost 20 years ago when Research4Life (https://www.research4life.org/) began offering to emerging nations access to hundreds and thousands of free or very inexpensive high quality journals, the founders quickly learned that turning on and pointing the fire hose was only the beginning — and that it was necessary to spend a fair amount of time with the users, conducting training and workshops and managing the sudden “free” riches. Training in use of e-resources continues unabated to this day not only in R4L, but also in libraries worldwide.
[By the way, there’s one thing that will not work optimally in accessing these “free” resources, and that is reliance on a search engine. For specific searches, tools like Google and Google Scholar can be very powerful, but the user doesn’t learn about the underlying structure of information resources nor how to understand the riches and possibilities of a given site, when all she sees are some hits from that site mixed in with many others on a relevance-keyed search.]
And then there’s what may be the most important lesson of all in this time of resource deluge: ephemerality is a critical weakness. The offerings readers are now being given are haphazard and as full of holes as Swiss cheese, not chosen by any rational selection process, but instead offered by providers who mean well, while also needing to consider their own convenience and advantage And the gifts are ephemeral — promised to expire on June 30 or some other early date, promised, that is, to go away and leave us.
As I’ve been working on this column (since April 15th) and living through lockdown, that June 30 deadline approaches. What should we expect next? [And as I write this, a few publishers have just extended their free offerings to August.] Will there be bold announcements of the “it’s safe to go back in the water so we’re pulling the plug” variety? Will librarians and others push back and insist on longer-term concessions? Most people agree that the virus conditions and fallouts won’t go away for a long time.
Do we go back and undo the work we’ve done to make these temporary resources useful? Web pages would be deleted, LibGuides cut back, etc. User expectations — or at least hopes — will have to be dashed just when we’re all discovering that the budgetary world of 2020-2021 isn’t going to be even as happy a place as, in its limited way, it has been in 2018 and 2019.
In short, we’re all learning that nothing about the pandemic and nothing about responding to the pandemic is just going to magically go away. The new temporary generosity and venturesomeness we’ve experienced reveal the flaws in a system of information provision that isn’t as universal, transparent, and accessible as we need it to be. Who’s going to step up to the challenge and find ways for us to come out of these times better off than our readers and we were before? Wrapping up this piece on Memorial Day weekend 2020, I have to say that the answers elude me.